Laurence Tribe, the celebrated liberal Constitutional scholar, was looking at a black plastic “Countdown Clock” that sits on a desk at his home in Cambridge, Mass. “Time until Bush goes,” reads the legend accompanying the digital read-out. The countdown stood at 692 days.
If the number seemed exhausting to the Harvard Law School professor, it may not be George W. Bush that’s to blame.
“Keeping up with Hillary’s machine is not easy,” he said.
Mr. Tribe’s former research assistant, Barack Obama, is now the leading contender against Senator Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, and Mr. Tribe is working furiously on behalf of his favorite alumnus.
“Although I know and admire Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and have worked with both of them and would be happy to support each of them if they won the nomination,” Mr. Tribe said, “ … I’ve never been as enthusiastic about a politician as I am about Barack.”
And so, on March 20, Mr. Tribe will finally get to co-host a party for more than 150 guests, at the Cambridge home of his law-school colleague David Wilkins, that was originally scheduled for this past weekend—before what the tabloids have dubbed the Battle of Selma.
Several of Mr. Obama’s former professors are expected to welcome their prodigal son back to Cambridge for the event, an intimate, $2,300-a-head affair.
“He was not just another extremely bright student,” Mr. Tribe said. “He made a really major impact when he was here. He was charismatic, he was thoughtful, he was mature.”
Several Harvard Law School faculty members who got to know Mr. Obama before he graduated in 1991 have spent the last 20 years eagerly watching his star rise. The Presidential campaign has become a culmination of the old New England bastion’s affection for a favorite son.
And at this early date in the campaign, their favors are about more than Mr. Obama’s image, as they and their cohort scramble to meet the maximum donations to his war chest before a March 31 deadline, when all agree that the viability of his candidacy will really be determined.
His closest friends are reaching out to prominent alumni to get them to donate money and join the pro-Obama group of Harvard Law School graduates they are forming. Their stated goal is to create a base of fund-raisers, policy advisors, and—should the need arise—sharp-eyed poll-watchers well versed in the law.
“Barack is not the product of any political machine—he’s not a traditional establishment candidate by any means—so he doesn’t necessarily have those networks to draw on,” said Andrew Schapiro, one of the nascent effort’s masterminds. “But Harvard Law School is a pre-existing network that is in many ways an establishment structure, and one that can provide a lot of enthusiasm and assistance for his candidacy.”
Working the Ivy network has become an important part of Presidential campaign politics in recent years. The first time that Bill Clinton ran for office, he was buoyed by support from a similar group of more than 200 alumni of Yale Law School, including the school’s then dean, Guido Calabresi, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, and dining-guide moguls Tim and Nina Zagat.
Mr. Obama’s fellow graduates, like Mr. Clinton’s, aren’t just at corporate law firms, but big shots in the worlds of business, entertainment, finance, education and, obviously, politics. Still, it’s a tight field to beat Hillary Clinton, who has connections with many deep-pocketed donors, especially along the East Coast. But so far, Mr. Obama seems to be making inroads with the donor class closest to his age bracket: hedge-fund, private-equity and venture-capital investors in their 30’s and 40’s.
Mr. Obama’s closest circle of law-school friends has also produced some of his most committed fund-raisers. Citigroup executive Michael Froman and hedge-fund manager Brian Mathis, both Harvard Law School friends, are chairs of the March 9 gala being held at the Grand Hyatt. A Harvard Law Review colleague, law professor Jonathan Molot, hosted 180 people for a fund-raising event at his home in Washington, D.C., last week. At it, Mr. Obama surveyed the crowd. “Geez, I feel like I’m at a law-school reunion,” he joked.
Last month, classmate Julius Genachowski, a private-equity advisor based in Washington, D.C., arranged a meeting between Mr. Obama and about 50 new-media and technology executives at an office in midtown. It was co-hosted by former AOL chief executive Jonathan Miller and technology venture-capitalist Deven Parekh.
“I’ve gotten e-mails from people I haven’t talked to in 15 years [saying], ‘Hey, I hear you’re still friends with Barack—what can I do?’” said Thomas Perrelli, a Washington lawyer and managing editor of the law review under Mr. Obama.
Several law-school friends have emerged as informal advisors as well. Cassandra Butts, a domestic-policy expert at the Center for American Progress, met Mr. Obama in the financial-aid office in their first days on campus. She helped Mr. Obama establish his Senate office, and she has been advising his campaign on policy and outreach to Harvard Law School alumni. Mr. Genachowski, who worked for the F.C.C. and for IAC/InterActiveCorp, chairs an advisory committee on technology and the Internet.
Many of them talk with or e-mail the Senator and his staff on a weekly basis, and the conversations can range from the personal (car seats) to the practical (advice on where to find a chief technology officer for the Web site). Some spend several hours a day working the phones to garner contributions.
“Candidates tend to get forced into living in a bubble. It’s difficult to receive direct and candid feedback,” said one former classmate and close advisor. “So I and some others have really tried to be that kind of resource to him … to give it to him straight, no chaser—not what Maureen Dowd and other reporters or pundits are saying, but what the people who are really supporting him, be it with their votes or financially, are thinking and saying.”
“Certain of Obama’s classmates from Harvard and Columbia have been important supporters in many ways—not just financially but strategically,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the campaign. “They’re important members of the circle of people who are important in the campaign.”
Mr. Schapiro, a lawyer based in New York and Chicago, as well as Mr. Genachowski and two other Harvard Law School friends from Los Angeles, Crystal Nix Hines and Nancy McCullough, all traveled to Springfield, Ill., in February to attend Mr. Obama’s announcement of his Presidential campaign. They huddled in the front row.
“One of the great things about this campaign is that it’s allowed a bunch of us to reconnect,” said Ms. Nix Hines, a television writer who will be organizing a fund-raiser for Mr. Obama in the spring.
He’s Not Haughty, He’s My Brother!
Because so many of the law school’s graduates enter politics, it’s not uncommon to hear alumni talk about the classmate they knew would be governor of South Carolina, or professors reminisce about the student they expected would be President.
In fact, however, the White House has been attained only once by a graduate of Harvard Law School, with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877.
And while the political careers of Harvard Law graduates are always a going concern in Cambridge, Mr. Obama’s Presidential race presents its own enticements.
Many of Clinton’s Ivy supporters some were appointed to important positions in the administration, including Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. (Mr. Clinton withdrew the nomination of his law-school friend Lani Guinier after an uproar over some of her articles on voting rights.)
Mr. Wilkins, the co-host of the March 20 fund-raiser, said that he always sends a small check to every student of his running for office, but that only with Mr. Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has he felt inspired to assume more responsibility.
Of course, Mr. Obama isn’t the only Harvard Law School alum to announce his candidacy this year. Republican candidate Mitt Romney graduated in 1975 (half a dozen students in the law school are working in his Boston campaign office), and now-withdrawn Democratic candidate Mark Warner, who sought advice from professors at the law school in the spring of last year, graduated in 1980.
But Mr. Obama’s supporters say that it’s not just the arguably liberal politics of the school that make the Illinois Senator the focus of their efforts instead of Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama’s connection to the school today is deeper.
“It’s a testament to the kind of people that we admit to law school,” said Mr. Wilkins, the professor hosting the March 20 fund-raiser. “There is something special about Barack and his connection to the law school …. It’s a lot easier for our students to imagine themselves as Barack, because, not so long ago, he was like them.”
“There’s a mystique about him,” said Michael Negron, a third-year student who is on the steering committee of a just-formed group of Harvard Law students supporting Mr. Obama.
On its newly launched Web site, the students often refer to the Senator in reverential terms. “Harvard Law School was an important part of Barack Obama’s life, so we’re going to make sure it’s an important part of his campaign for President,” reads one section. Another adds: “He may be a Harvard lawyer, but Barack does not have a haughty New England background.”
That very defensiveness, however, seems to point up something about how Mr. Obama’s Harvard pedigree is being integrated into his life story. After a weekend in Selma, Ala., in which he had to compete with a white woman with a degree from Yale Law School for credibility among black voters, it’s worth asking whether Mr. Obama, the first black candidate for President not to have started his political career in the civil-rights movement, gains from his attachment to an establishment bastion like Harvard. Does Harvard do as much for Mr. Obama’s candidacy as his candidacy does for Harvard?
Arguably, Mr. Obama settled that question quite nicely in Selma.
“It’s because they marched that we elected councilmen, Congressmen,” he told the crowd gathered at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church during his trip to Selma. “It is because they marched that we have Artur Davis and Keith Ellison. It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate.”
(Incidentally, it was Mr. Davis, a friend of Mr. Obama’s from Harvard Law, who invited him to Selma.)
In fact, the dazzling scholastic careers of candidates like Mr. Obama are becoming a big part of their personal narratives. Early newspaper reports breathlessly chronicled his rise to the presidency of Harvard’s über-prestigious law review, dissecting his leadership style for signs of the kind of chief executive he might be. Professors have talked admiringly of his willingness to turn down federal clerkships and corporate law jobs in order to return to Chicago and work for community organizations—indications of how he resisted allowing the law school to corrupt his personal ideals. His election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review landed him coverage in The New York Times and his first book deal.
While working on the law review provides a student with plenty of opportunities to make enemies, Mr. Obama seems to have made some very good friends. That credibility is what they offer when they call prospective donors. They talk about meeting him on the basketball court, as well as the assistance he offered them with law-review articles.
“You’re taking about people who have known him for 18, 19 years. There’s a history there,” said Ms. Nix Hines, who spends “a couple hours a day” talking with people who are on the fence, telling them “what I know about Barack.”